If I ever heard that Hal Holbrook was going to be performing “Mark Twain Tonight” anywhere that I could get to, I got there. It was invariably a superb invocation of the old man himself, complete with white linen suit, handlebar mustache, and a Havana cigar. I remember it taking him about ten minutes to tell a story about a billy goat spotting a man bending over: talking as he meticulously prepared and lit a cigar (requiring several matches that burned down during his monolog), while the audience sat transfixed by the whole process. There’ll never be another as good.
But, it was the content of what Twain had to say, as well as the silly stories, that’s lingered with me. The bit I remember best, which bubbles up frequently these days, is Twain’s claim to be the moral superior of George Washington. As well as I can recall: I don’t tell lies. I differ from George Washington. I have a higher and grander standard of principle. George could not tell a lie. I can. But I won’t. Oh, I used to tell lies. But I’ve given it up. The field is overrun with amateurs. Probably his best-known adage, as well, is, “If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.”
There’s a more serious side to Twain’s discourse on lying. The most damnable lie, he said, is the silent lie. Nowadays we call it the elephant in the room. For him, as an ardent anti-slavery advocate, the silence from the pulpits of the churches of his day during and after emancipation was a far greater offense to the truth than actively telling a lie.
Do any of us watching, say, “Law and Order,” really believe that the witness who has just sworn to tell the truth, actually will? It’s a sadly foregone conclusion among us that lying, even under oath, is pretty much expected. That’s a more dangerous normalcy than we can imagine.
A Cree elder, deposed a few years ago during the hearings to allow HydroQuebec, was asked the usual question, “Do you swear ... etc?” He literally had no concept of the truth as something outside himself. “I don’t know what this ‘truth’ is you’re talking about,” he said. “I can tell you only what I know.”
I learned to lie at a young age — I prefer to think of it as the nascence of a gift for telling stories. My parents were deaf, so had to rely on physical evidence and the testimony of me and my sister (often conflicting) to determine the facts of the misdemeanors in question. They were also, if I may say so, old-fashioned moralists. Early on, I had to decide quickly, and under stress, whether the penalty for confessing a sin would be greater than the penalty of getting caught in a lie designed to avoid confessing.
Those habits died hard. As I watch the obvious lies and prevarications of Washington luminaries enlivening the media these days, I can see clearly that they die hard for others, as well. Have they never read the conclusions of experts: that the offense is but a small percentage of the damage, and the cover-up almost all of it? Judges, when instructing juries about to consider decisions on complicated questions, sometimes urge them simply to “use common sense.” Employing that yardstick, I don’t have to work very hard to wonder why so many associates of the president are unwilling to testify under oath. And I can’t help but notice that almost anyone who enters a working relationship with the current world champion of public prevarication is almost invariably infected with that same, seemingly airborne, contagion.
Lying, like cheating to win or avoid detection is foolish, anyway. Let’s imagine that nobody tumbled to Rosie Ruiz’s subway marathon deception; what joy could she have lived with? Or what might Lance Armstrong be dreading if he still were living with the fear of being exposed as a doper? Or what sort of life could Richard Nixon have enjoyed knowing that the damning office tapes were still behind him somewhere, ready to destroy his reputation? Living with lies is an arduous business and, as Mark Twain implied, can require a prodigious memory and constant vigilance.
In recent years, as I begin to face that I’m not going anywhere special, I’ve felt the impulse to lie diminish markedly (except, perhaps, to the occasional constable who asks if I know how fast I was going). I like to remember the remark of Robert Frost’s old Witch of Coös, who’s lived for decades with the bones of a murdered man in her cellar. Her son says, “We never could tell whose bones they were.” His mother gently remonstrates: “Yes, we could too, son. Tell the truth for once...tonight I don’t care enough to lie — I don’t know why I ever cared.” It doesn’t matter how you dress up a lie — in obfuscation, gas-lighting, or diversion. It’s still a prevarication, a lovely word that in its original Latin praevaricari, means to walk crookedly. That crooked walking makes our lives a lot livelier, but, as we can see every day now, it’s best kept for small infractions involving cookie jars, and not for matters of national moment.
Willem Lange is a regular contributor to Weekend Magazine. He lives in East Montpelier.